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Since October 7, Israel has escalated attacks in the West Bank, where Hamas is absent

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The past couple of days of cease-fire and prisoner exchanges have been a reprieve from seven weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas. It started when Hamas launched a deadly attack in southern Israel on October 7 and kidnapped more than 240 people. But Gaza isn't the only Palestinian front in this war. Almost 58 miles away, the West Bank is partially controlled by the Israeli military. The area is controlled by Palestinians, are ruled by the Palestinian Authority. So why has Israel been launching attacks on the West Bank in recent weeks? And what is Israel's strategy behind the curfews, drone strikes and deadly raids there? I spoke to retired General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, former head of U.S. Central Command, on Friday. I started by asking him about the military strategy at play.

Palestinians say Israeli actions in the West Bank amount to collective punishment and that they had nothing to do with the Hamas attack on October 7. Israel says its forces have been responding to terrorist attacks. What are you seeing unfold in the West Bank in terms of a military strategy there?

KENNETH MCKENZIE: Well, I think one of the fundamental concepts of the Israeli approach to the war in Gaza is to prevent it from widening. And so I think they are not interested in further turmoil in the West Bank. So I think if - when the Israelis operate in there, they're actually going after elements that are attempting to strike against them in the West Bank.

MCCAMMON: Since the start of the war, there have been more reported attacks, though, from Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, with at least eight being gunned down by settler militias, according to the United Nations. There have also been reports that the U.S. delayed shipping some weapons to Israel over concerns that officials are using them to arm settlers in the West Bank. What do you make of these outbreaks of violence?

MCKENZIE: All conflicts have to have some form of a political settlement at the end. Ultimately, if there's going to be some form of a long-term way forward, there's going to have to be some vision of a two-state solution. It's not going to involve Hamas, but it probably has to involve the Palestine Authority or some other Arab entity from a coalition of nations that might be willing to contribute. And settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank does not help that objective.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk more about the Israeli military actions. Israel says its goal is to eradicate Hamas. The West Bank isn't controlled by Hamas. Most of it, what's known as the occupied West Bank, is under Israeli control. What more can you say about what or who Israelis may be targeting there?

MCKENZIE: So I think there are a variety of extremist groups that operate in the West Bank. I agree with you. It's largely Palestinian Authority controlled. Not a lot of Hamas, if any, operates in there. But nonetheless, there are entities there that have attacked Israel. And, of course, you've also mentioned the violence that's perpetrated against some of the Palestinians by Israeli settlers there. It's a very difficult situation. What - my observation from afar, and without knowing the precise details of the back and forth, is Israel very much needs to keep a lid on this because I believe the West Bank has to be part of a long-term solution, and to approach it any other way is to just not have a strategic vision for the future.

MCCAMMON: Big picture, you've said that Israel is trying to avoid a wider war. I wonder if you can say more about that, and specifically what Israel is trying to achieve with its operations in the West Bank, because there are operations there.

MCKENZIE: Sure. I think they're attempting to prevent attacks from developing against Israel. And we can all argue about why those attacks are occurring. Is it because of settler violence? Is it related to other things? But I think that what they're trying to do is scope and scale them to the most minimal scale possible. But as you noted, those attacks are continuing. And the larger picture is this, frankly. When Israel went into Gaza, in my view, they're trying to accomplish sort of five things. One is the dismantlement of Hamas, both politically and militarily, and its ability to to attack Israel. The second thing is you want to actually prevent civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible - hard to do because of the way Hamas is embedded in the civilian infrastructure there. The third thing they're trying to do is prevent casualties - minimize casualties to the Israeli Defense Force and Israeli citizens in Israel. The fourth thing would be to try to recover as many hostages as possible. Clearly, you know, some of that is occurring now. We see that process underway right now. I'm not optimistic that all the hostages are going to come back anytime soon. But that's just my opinion. And the final thing, and the thing we've talked about a little bit before, is they don't want this conflict to widen. They don't want it to involve Lebanese Hezbollah. They don't want it to involve the West Bank. And they certainly don't want it to involve Iran.

MCCAMMON: You've said that ultimately, long term, you think that if there's any hope of resolution here, it will have to come in the form of a two-state solution. But as you know, there have been many attempts toward that over many years that have failed. Do you have any hope that at the end of the day here, there's going to be any progress in that direction, particularly after this war, which has been so painful?

MCKENZIE: Well, you know, the 1973 war, the surprise attack on Israel launched by Egypt, Syria and some other Arab nations, actually produced profound strategic opportunity that led to a peace accord between Egypt and Israel that has been sort of the foundation of peace in the Middle East ever since. So bloody as this fight might seem right now, this conflict brings an opportunity, perhaps, for a reset.

MCCAMMON: Is there a risk that in targeting the West Bank, Israel may further radicalize some Palestinians, even ones who don't support Hamas?

MCKENZIE: I think that's a very real risk. I think that's the difficulty in all kinds of counterinsurgency operations. I think that's a very real risk that they run. And I'm sure the Israelis recognize that.

MCCAMMON: That's retired General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie. General McKenzie, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MCKENZIE: Thanks. It was great to join you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.